Earlier this month I fell in love with one of the stupidest apps on the planet: VinylLove. Here’s how it works: VinylLove turns your digital music album into a virtual analog album. Load it up and you’ll see a big-ass turntable, needle and all, and your “record” spinning on the platter. Listen closely and you’ll hear digital hisses, pops, and crackles. Put your hand on the record and – you guessed it – you can scratch it like a low-budget DJ Premier. I now won’t listen to any song unless it is on the digital record player. And I actually collect real vinyl records! I feel like an idiot.
Wasn’t this the bargain, though: Buy the latest technology and your music will sound better. It is the reason we upgraded from tapes to expensive CDs, or still go to the fancy THX-enabled theater to see the latest Marvel movie. But we kind of fell off a cliff about a decade ago. Many, like myself, noticed with the portable music players. Since space was a premium, music had to be compressed into smaller file sizes, which meant lower fidelity. The compression continued well after the iPod’s gigabyte-level drives made song size nearly irrelevant. In fact, as of a couple years ago, Apple started charging customers to get the high-fidelity version of songs they already bought. The nerve!
I’d prefer just to blame Apple, but the music industry is to blame as well. About two decades ago – well before the first iPod was shipped from China – producers started using digital products to master their records. Rolling Stone did an excellent article on the phenomenon in 2007. My favorite quote:
“With all the technical innovation, music sounds worse,” says Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, who has made what are considered some of the best-sounding records of all time. “God is in the details. But there are no details anymore.”
So now we see the results of technology betraying our ears with people like myself trying to act like the new millennium never came to music or, more subversively, companies like VinylLove’s Color Monkey using new technology to remake the old technology destroyed by the very same device. It’s hilarious, really.
And the trend isn’t going away anytime soon. As I wrote recently, vinyl sales have been skyrocketing since 2008 – shortly after the Rolling Stone article. I don’t think the physical vinyl thing will continue – I mean, hipsters will eventually move on to something else – but the craving to have something more real than those digital, “perfect” pop songs on the radio today will continue. It will be fake digital pops and crackles, or a revival of cassette tapes, or an app that distorts music into a 1920’s phonograph.
We fought for years to get our analog technology to sound like digital perfection. Now that we’ve achieved it, we’ll be spending the rest of our lifetimes trying to get that flawed authenticity back.